So, Tuesday night Amercian Idol opens with three “Hollywooders” in the first 10 minutes. Blond Russian girl was pretty good and the young vocal chord challenged 16 year old is going to be interesting. There were a couple of freaks, but mostly folks who just wouldn’t take no for an answer.
After a quick hour, the last of the auditionees arrives. One Carly Smithson, originally from Ireland, performs a unique, yet adequate rendition of I’m Every Woman. Her backstory is that she tried out in Las Vegas in 2005 in Taylor Hicks’ lot but because of a Visa snafu, she was disqualified after “wowing” the judges. She was distraught on losing her chance two years ago and wants so much for this to be “her break”.
Now, what American Idol conveniently omitted in this backstory is that Carly Smithson is her married name. Her maiden name was Carly Hennessey, who was signed by MCA Records (now Geffen) in 2002. The massive failure of her debut CD, Ultimate High, has been the subject of case studies and a Wall Street Journal article of music industry economics and just what goes wrong for the majority of new music acts.
From Stereophile in 2002….
In “Pop Singer Fails to Strike a Chord Despite the Millions Spent by MCA,” Jennifer Ordonez details how the Universal Vivendi label spent millions grooming a teenage Irish singer for a career as a pop star. The label provided 18-year-old Carly Hennessey and her father with a car and a nice apartment in Marina Del Rey, plus a generous stipend for living expenses. MCA also piled on the vocal coaches, image consultants, songwriters, arrangers, producers, and promotional experts. Total investment, prior to the release of Ultimate High, Ms. Hennessey’s debut album: in excess of $2.2 million. Total sales of the CD, as of February 25: 378. That’s approximately $4900 at retail.
The Hennessey debacle is perhaps more typical than most music executives wish to admit. Industry rule-of-thumb has it that a typical big-label album must sell at least 500,000 copies to break even. Ordonez quotes SoundScan figures showing that of the 6455 new albums distributed by major labels in the US last year, only 112 sold that many. In the music industry, perhaps more than in any other, the winners pay for the losers. That’s the real reason Greene and his colleagues want to keep their cash cows in the barn.
Nowhere in the discussions of the music industry’s malaise has there been any mention of the fault lying with management, as in the case of Carly Hennessey. Nor has there been any suggestion that executive compensation might be part of the problem. The music industry is one whose top tier is particularly heavy with big titles and big packages. “A decade ago, people thought if you paid CEOs $5 million or $10 million, you could get them to work hard and smart, but now it has to be hundreds of millions of dollars,” Harvard Business School professor Joseph Badaracco recently told WSJ editor Carol Hymowitz. “It’s a very rare company where pay falls at the top when performance falls.”
Carly Hennessey had grooming, a record deal, support and even a video:
Now, this puzzles me. Isn’t this diametrically opposed to what American Idol is about? Aren’t they looking for new talent that hasn’t been given a shot? Since Carly hasn’t had a deal for over five years, should all of the early investment in her not count? The specific “rules” say you can’t currently be under contract, so technically she qualifies but is this in the real “spirit” of American Idol? If so, why does it appear that American Idol is less than forthcoming with Carly’s entire backstory. Did they really think that people wouldn’t remember her or have a clue as to who she is? After all, this IS American Idol and scrutiny is king. Or, is that what they are after?
Perhaps they need controversy to generate interest and viewers. While I feel for Carly and her evident plight since her initial foray into the music industry, I’m conflicted in that she’s had her chance. Isn’t it a bit unfair to others who are waiting to be plucked from obscurity?
I hear Annie Lennox is without a label, maybe she should have run down to San Diego….